Most days, I could find my mother sitting on a high stool behind the large front plate glass window of the Elmwood Market. She worked the register and took most incoming calls and filled incoming grocery orders as needed, in preparation for their delivery. She knew the names of every customer and their children as well. Same for Dad who worked with a white butcher’s apron tied around his waist. He could be found at the meat counter or managing the delivery boys, filling orders, chit chatting with the customers, and sometimes sneaking cigarettes if he thought Mom wouldn’t catch him. I worked there too, through high school, mostly on Saturdays, and in the summer, to fill in at the register if mom needed a day away. I did my best to learn the names of the customers, but always fell short and felt embarrassed when I had to ask them their name to look up a charge account. I didn’t mind working, but found some aspects of it annoying, especially when I was at the receiving end of observations the customers couldn’t help making about me, such as, you look just like your mother or you’re all grown up now !
It was a classic mom and pop business that Dad started during the depression, just before he got married. Like many other small grocers of that era, he offered charge accounts and free delivery to customers. Ultimately, Mom convinced Dad to charge for delivery. So, he added 25 cents to each order to cover delivery charges. That was as high as the delivery fee ever went, even as gas prices soared in the 1970’s. At the meat counter he could be heard dispensing free cooking advice, which always amused me because he never cooked a thing at home. For any piece of meat, he’d rattle off the best way to cook it, for how long and at what temperature. I never heard any customer accuse him of not knowing what he was talking about. Maybe because they knew better than to follow his directions.
Crises at the store occurred on a relatively frequent basis. Once or twice a year, in the middle of the night, Dad would get a call from the Holyoke Police Department letting him know that the store burglar alarm was going off. A late night call always signaled a serious problem at our house, either burglary or the death of a far-flung family member. Dad had to go across town to the store to determine if anything had been stolen. Very little was ever taken, but it didn’t make for the best night’s sleep.
Mudgie, a kindly but alcoholic butcher, presided over the meat department. He was the non – recovering type . He was very loyal to Dad, as Dad was to him, but caused my parents innumerable problems when he’d go off on a bender and wouldn’t come to work for days, leaving Dad with fewer hands than he needed. Mudgie’s unpredictability usually nixed any vacations plans for my parents, much to my mother’s dissatisfaction. If they did manage to get away for a few days, there was often a mess to contend with when they returned.
Dad hired neighborhood kids to work in the store and to deliver the groceries. Often, the boys would disappear with the truck and the groceries for several hours during delivery, probably visiting girlfriends along the way. They’d always have some cockamamie excuse as to why delivery took so long. Half the kids in the neighborhood worked at the Elmwood Market at some time during their teen age years. Many were sons of customers, which made firing them a bit of an issue. A few of them were cute. That helped to liven up my hours of work.
Things seemed to look up when a large residential home for seniors opened across the street from the store. Unfortunately, few of the residents shopped at the store, preferring the now bright and bustling supermarkets. The ones who did come in, usually old women, became adept at shoplifting, generally preferring to steal large cans of expensive crabmeat. Dad would often catch them in the act, and ask them to put it back. Other times, they’d come up to the check out counter with some small item they wanted to pay for, still concealing the crabmeat. “Haven’t you forgotten something, Mrs. O’Malley? Can you show me your bag?” They never argued, but they would return again another time to try once more. It was a classic game of cat and mouse.
The 1950’s saw the ascent of the super market, which was a competitor that never before confronted the small merchant. Times got tougher. Many other small grocers went out of business, unable to compete with their aggressive marketing. Customers would come into the store to tell us that they’d seen a similar item at Stop and Shop or the A & P for less money than the Elmwood Market. Dad would patiently explain that the supermarkets all used loss leaders to get customers into their stores, and that on other items, the Elmwood Market was often less expensive than the chain stores.
The holiday season was highly anticipated as a time of increased sales, driven by the fact that the Elmwood Market sold native (New Englandese for locally raised) turkeys. Orders at that time of year would be large and were to be delivered at a specified time. Needless to say, the telephone began ringing once the specified hour passed. Anxious callers demanded to know “where’s my turkey?” Response was always, “It’s on the truck.” What time the truck would arrive with their order was another question entirely, because it depended on the motivation of the delivery boys to get the job done quickly. By the end of a very long day, all orders were always delivered, although invariably there were one or two items in the order that the customer was missing. Whatever it was, he delivered it singlehandedly, arriving home and pouring himeself several stiff drinks.
Over the years, customers were lost because of attrition and the seductive lure of the Big Store. Except for our relatives. They were the most loyal because they got a 20% discount, always more than the profit my Dad made on most items. As the old customers drifted away, it would be a cause for celebration if a young family moved into the neighborhood and began shopping in the store.
Somehow my Mom and Dad eked out a reasonable living from that store. They managed to put me and my brother through college and my brother through law school! My Dad didn’t retire until he was 75. He had no choice then, because my Mom, suffering from Alzheimer’s, had become too sick to work with him anymore. He was needed on the home front.
We threw a big party for Dad on the occasion of his 90th birthday,years after the store had closed. When I asked him for names of folks he wanted to attend, many were former customers. All guests were thrilled to be able to reconnect with Dad. I listened to several moving stories of how, decades before, Dad extended lengthy months of credit to them, when they fell upon difficult times, because of illness or an unemployed spouse. It was because of Dad that they had food on their tables. He never even charged them interest. They never forgot his kindness. Dad’s 90th birthday party was a life lesson about what matters in life. His life was the epitome of a life well lived.